Sunday, 20 March 2011

Resuscitating a novel

This weekend I re-read the 15,000 or so words of a novel I started writing last year, and then abandoned. At the time I was trying to write something I believed would be more commercially viable than my previous efforts, having concluded that writing the kind of thing that I would like to read is not a great recipe for selling success.

Having just been through a phase of reading an awful lot in general, it was interesting to read something of my own that for once had been in the bottom drawer long enough for me to forget some details. I was pleasantly surprised, as the writing had soured in my memory until I believed I had written something I should be ashamed of. I hadn’t, and I might well go back to it.

The reason the novel had caused me difficulties to the point of giving up on it was exactly the same as the reason for which I had begun writing it in the first place: I wanted to produce something that might have commercial appeal. I’ve written here before about the division, in the minds of publishers at least, between literary commercial fiction. I’d also read urgent pleas from both publishers and agents that somebody would produce commercially viable novels that were as well written as their literary counterparts. So I thought, I might as well give it a try.

The defining characteristic of ‘commercial’ novels, apart from the obvious one that, when done well, they sell hundreds of times more copies than literary ones, seems to be that they must have strong plots. It’s not that literary novels don’t do plot, just that the latter kind of book can be interesting, original, and great without being a rip-roaring page-turner.

Personally I don’t find a brilliant plot enough to engage me. If the sentences are badly written, expressions hackneyed, or characters clich├ęd, I’ve given up before the end of chapter one. It’s a matter of taste, but I can’t get far enough into, say, a John Grisham novel, to even start to assess the plot, so turned off am I by the style. However, I know full well that this is not the case for a huge number of avid readers out there. Many don’t even notice the style of the writing, and in a way they are lucky, because it renders so many more stories readable.

So for my ‘commercial’ novel, I set about constructing what I hoped was a powerful plot, remembering to multiply the jeopardy with each step towards final resolution. I included elements of romance, danger, mystery and (dare I admit it) the supernatural. I created a defiant but vulnerable protagonist, and plonked her into a world where events would soon escalate beyond her control and would have changed her irrevocably by the time she was safely at the final page.

What made me cringe in the end was the self-conscious manner in which I had approached this exercise. I kept remembering the one piece of advice to writers that I’ve been able to take seriously in my creative life: at any one time, you should be writing the best novel you think you can. I doubted that was what I was up to in this case. The familiar creative dilemma reared its ugly head: should I sacrifice artistic integrity for the sake of some other (commercial) measure of success?

Pretty silly to worry, given that there was no real reason to expect this novel to be sellable finally. So now that time has passed, and my outlook has changed, perhaps I can reapply my artistic integrity and make this a great novel by my own standards. 


  1. Perhaps writing this to your own standards will be part of what makes it interesting to readers. Best of luck with your renewed efforts.

  2. When I painted seriously I would often return to work I had previously abandoned. But almost always this involved an element of reinvention, using a fragment (sometimes literally torn off) or the ghost image which remained after erasing the original. Frank Auerbach uses this technique in his drawings especially, sometimes having to patch the paper when he has worn it through.

    I think there can be an equivalent process in writing.

    Oh, and I agree about popular novels - I can't get past the writing either. Much the same applies to film.